Redefining normal

Columnist Najla Al Tenaiji explores the concept of ‘normal’ and why it should not be something that is fixed, but rather a constantly evolving definition that grows and changes with our lives

For those facing tough battles in life, there comes a time when we all have to decide what recovery means to us personally. Is it an end point where that particular challenge is over and forgotten about, an anecdote to be told at parties with a sigh of relief, or is it learning to live with a new version of what’s normal? 

For me, after a long, hard phase of chronic illness and years in rehabilitation, I have my own definition. I believe that recovery is a lifelong journey, one of self-discovery, growth and ultimately transformation.

The person you are at the start of treatment is often completely different from the person you’ll become. As I look back, I can see a path of infinite small steps, milestones and accomplishments that have combined to create the person I am now.   

When we face a new challenge, we often inadvertently visualise every little step we need to take in order to overcome that challenge. It’s just how the brain processes these kinds of things. From your position on the starting line, you might believe that there is a ‘finishing line’, a definitive point at which the struggle stops. Once you reach that place, you’ll be in the clear. But for many challenges, that isn’t how things work. In a lot of cases, recovery is not a destination, it’s a journey.

When life hands you a struggle, things can initially feel very dark and confusing. As Katherine May wrote in her brilliant book, Wintering, ‘It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.’ It affects your whole life: your emotions and your ability to function normally.

The thing to remember is that we all feel this way at some point or another. As May notes, ‘We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves.’ Yet ‘winter’ as she terms these difficult periods, is inevitable. Crucially, I have learned that these periods of struggle are not incompatible with everyday life. It’s just that you may need to redefine what that everyday life means for you right now. For the chronically ill among us, redefining your normal is a huge part of stepping out into the world after recovery.

Our thinking patterns have their own powers. A shift in perspective is often what is really needed to keep you moving forward. Allow it in and watch as you grow more self-aware, a stronger, more complete person. A sense of purpose and achievement on this bumpy road of recovery will always keep you looking forward. While there may not be an end goal that you can work towards, there are plenty of smaller goalposts to reach that are just as important.

For me, success is a sum of hundreds of small efforts, repeated day in day out. I am on my road of recovery, walking slowly, but never stopping.